Leaders of the five-member BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — begin a three-day summit in Johannesburg on Tuesday, where they will discuss expanding the club. A geopolitical alternative to Western-led forums like the Group of 7.
The latest gathering of leaders has garnered a level of international interest rarely seen since the group was first formed 14 years ago.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, along with a trade war between Beijing and Washington, has renewed debate over whether the bloc will remain a loose trade alliance or become a new international alliance. Dozens of countries have expressed interest in joining, including Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The candidates are as diverse as the BRICS bloc, which represents 40 percent of the world’s population and a quarter of its economy.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made a state visit to Pretoria with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and was expected to travel to Johannesburg later for the summit. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Johannesburg in the afternoon, The Times of India reported. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin appears almost certain to avoid an international arrest warrant for crimes against humanity during the war in Ukraine.
Mr. Xi met Ramaphosa. On an official visit, Mr. Xi inspected a guard of honor and announced the official arrival, shaking hands with a row of cabinet ministers as a cannon shot sounded. The two leaders later held a short news conference, reiterating their longstanding political and economic ties, but taking no questions.
Mr. In Putin’s absence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov headed the country’s delegation. After shaking hands with a line of officials upon his arrival, Mr. Lavrov joined a troupe of classical dancers. After a few uncertain steps, he clapped his hands for a few beats before leaving with a thumbs up.
China, the bloc’s largest economy, wants expansion to boost its own influence, while isolated Russia needs new allies as it digs into a protracted war in Ukraine. India and Brazil, the strongest alliances among industrialized nations, favor a more cautious approach. South Africa, the group’s smallest economy, has been pushing for more African members and has invited more than 30 African leaders to join this year’s meeting.
The diplomatic challenges facing South Africa at the summit reflect the geopolitical interests that BRICS countries must balance – especially smaller countries that owe their allegiance to more wealthy and powerful countries.
Mr. Putin is wanted by the International Criminal Court, accused of kidnapping Ukrainian children and their deportation to Russia. He had planned to attend in person, but was spared the dilemma of whether South Africa would arrest him. Even so, South Africa continues to face pressure from its Western allies over its close ties to the Kremlin.
In order to demonstrate neutrality, Mr. Ramaphosa called for the return of abducted Ukrainian children and the reinstatement of the Black Sea Grain Agreement, which allowed Ukraine to export grain to the world, particularly to countries in Africa with food shortages.
“We resisted the pressure to align ourselves with global powers or influential countries,” he said in a televised address on Sunday.